Recently, the United Nations peacekeeping mission fired tear gas and rubber bullets into a crowded refugee camp, leaving at least six hospitalized and others suffering respiratory problems. Citizen organizations planned demonstrations June 1, the sixth anniversary of the UN armed presence in Haiti. The march is part of growing protests against the military forces, which have amassed in Haiti since the January 12 earthquake, and the lack of attention to displaced people’s needs.
On May 23, students at the School of Ethnology of the State University of Haiti held another in a series of protests on the central Champs de Mars Boulevard. The UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH, by its French acronym) and Haitian police went into the school, firing tears gas and rubber bullets, while the students threw rocks.
Then at about 3:00, MINUSTAH troops began firing in the internally displaced people’s camp in the downtown parks around Champs de Mars, where many thousands of people are crowded into tight quarters. The firing continued for hours, according to residents interviewed for this article and other reports. Camp residents reported that babies and small children choked on the gas and passed out, as did at least two women with pre-existing heart conditions. Three doctors with Partners in Health at the University Hospital reported treating at least six victims of rubber bullet rounds. Two children were wounded in the face, one of them requiring about ten stitches, according to one of the doctors.
When the attack began, camp residents, including many elderly and infirm people, and babies and small children fled. “I saw one woman running with her twins that are three or four months old,” said Eramithe Delva. “She had one in each arm, and with every step as she ran they banged against her chest. Is this what they want for us?” Many spent the night in the streets, for fear of returning to the camp. Residents interviewed said they had no idea why MINUSTAH fired on them.
MINUSTAH has since issued an apology for entering in the School of Ethnology. The statement did not mention the attack on the camp.
Demonstrations in Port-au-Prince and other areas of the country have become a daily occurrence. Most of them protest the government’s handling of the disaster and the heavy political and military presence of foreign powers since January 12. Within days after the earthquake, 12,600 UN troops, 20,000 U.S. troops, 2,000 Canadians, 600 French, and more from other countries amassed there.
Rural organizer Selina Pierre-Louis said, “We don’t know what these soldiers came to do. They have batons and guns in their hands. They zoom up and down in their huge vehicles all day. We’re not at war and we’re not armed. We need technical support, we need reconstruction, we need psychological help. They’re not doing anything to help the rebuilding. They’re just adding to our trauma.”
Troop levels overall have abated since the first months after the earthquake. The most recent figures on MINUSTAH’s web site show that just over 9,000 MINUSTAH forces remain there. The mission’s cost for the current fiscal year is $611.75 million.
The Security Council-approved MINUSTAH was established on June 1, 2004, with a triple mandate of ensuring a “secure and stable environment,” promoting a constitutional political process and strengthening human rights. Francky Etienne Remy, who owns a small craft shop in Jacmel, said, “The Haitian police are totally ineffectual so MINUSTAH fills a vacuum.”
Yet, MINUSTAH troops have repeatedly been accused of killings, arbitrary arrests and human rights violations throughout the duration of the mission. (See, for example, the reports of Harvard Law Student Advocates for Human Rights and Human Rights Watch.) These charges include an attack by MINUSTAH forces in Cité Soleil on April 15, 2005, killing several; an attack on July 6, 2005, resulting in an uncertain number of deaths; the killing of at least five people and possibly many more, in Cité Soleil in December 22, 2006; and the shooting death of a young man at the funeral of a prominent priest on July 14, 2009.
In February, 2008, the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services released its findings from an investigation into accusations against Sri Lankan MINUSTAH troops. It found that acts of sexual exploitation and abuse of children were “frequent” and occurred “at virtually every location where the contingent personnel were deployed.”
MINUSTAH forces have also been shot at and killed. MINUSTAH claims it has suffered 152 troop fatalities.
Beyond charges of unnecessary force, others like the student, small farmer, worker, and popular organizations, which organized the march, oppose MINUSTAH because they claim the mission undermines Haitian sovereignty. The May 26 press statement for the march, signed by ten organizations, stated, “After the January 12 catastrophe, the occupation has been strengthened with other foreign soldiers and MINUSTAH, on the pretext that they are helping us … [T]hey did nothing to help prevent more than 300,000 people from dying under rubble … Now on the sixth anniversary of the occupation, we are taking to the streets of Port-au-Prince to get the country out from under the rubble of MINUSTAH.”
Community organizer Nixon Boumba with the grassroots organization Democratic Popular Movement said in an interview, “We’re asking for Haitians to be the true actors in their future, and for an end to the occupation to allow the country to have dignity and autonomy for the development and transformation of the country. We need schools, we need people in the camps attended to. After January 12 there have been a lot of opportunities to resolve the problems in the country. Instead, Canada, France, the U.S., Brazil, and others have acted like imperialists, strengthening their power and trying to undermine our chance to change the quality of our country. The U.S. wants Haiti to serve as a military base for the Caribbean, to control resistance from Latin America. And they want to prevent a massive emigration toward the U.S. and Canada.”
1. Information gathered from author interviews as well as first-person testimony collected by Melinda Miles, KOMPAY, and reported in a May 25 email to the author; and by Ansel Herz, Inter Press Service, reported in “UN Clash with Frustrated Students Spills into Camps,” May 25.
2. MINUSTAH Facts and Figures.
3. Eyewitness testimony, AP television news story, April 15, 2010.
7. Human Rights Watch, “Haiti: Events of 2008.”
8. MINUSTAH Facts and Figures.
9. Gwoup 77 et al., “Press Release: Let’s mobilize to get the country out of the rubble of foreign aid and the rubble of the occupation,” Port-au-Prince, May 26, 2010.